Did the 2010 Polish plane tragedy at Smolensk have an impact on Canada?
By Mark Wegierski
April 10, 2010 (ten years ago) is the date of the Polish plane tragedy at Smolensk. One does recall that in its aftermath, the Polish-Canadian community may have finally broken through to the consciousness at least some Canadians. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s declaration of a day of national mourning for Canada, in solidarity with Poland, and his participation and speech in the mass memorial held at St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish in Mississauga, Ontario, on April 15, 2010, could have been very important moments in the history of the Polish-Canadian community. “Whenever Poland grieves, Canada grieves,” Stephen Harper said. “We stand with the victims of Katyn then and now.” Finally, a Canadian Prime Minister was expressing what seemed like genuine sympathy for Poles, combined with at least some real knowledge of Polish history – a knowledge that was sadly lacking among most of his predecessors and, indeed, most Canadians.
There is some irony in the fact that a Conservative Prime Minister and government had apparently delivered more to the Polish-Canadian community than earlier Liberal administrations. The height of the Liberal engagement with Polish-Canadians came in the 1970s and 1980s, with the long-serving M.P.s Stanley Haidasz (Canada’s first Minister of State for Multiculturalism, and also later a Senator), and Jesse Flis (who represented the riding of Parkdale-High Park, which includes the Polish Roncesvalles Avenue village).
Jean Chretien’s attitudes to Polish-Canadians were mostly indifferent. He “parachuted” a non-Polish candidate into the Parkdale-High Park riding. In 1995, he revoked veterans’ benefits for veterans of the Polish armed forces, who had faithfully fought at the side of the Allies. For Poles, who had suffered so much during the Second World War, and who had unstintingly fought “for your freedom and ours” – this was a cruel blow.
Harper and the Conservative Party clearly perceived that Polish-Canadians could be attracted by them. In the relatively short period since January 2006, the Harper government had carried out a number of initiatives of importance to Polish-Canadians. The veterans’ benefits were restored to Polish veterans. There was the lifting of visa requirements for Polish citizens travelling to Canada. This had been a long-time irritant for Polish-Canadians, and their relatives in Poland. There was the signing of an agreement for interchangeability of Canadian and Polish pension plans. The processes of student exchanges between Canada and Poland became more streamlined.
In the May 2011 federal election, there were at least two, emphatically Polish-Canadian M.P.s elected in the Conservative caucus – Wladyslaw Lizon (Mississauga East-Cooksville), and Ted Opitz (Etobicoke-Centre). In the October 2015 federal election, they were both defeated, but Tom Kmiec (Calgary-Shepard) was elected. He was easily re-elected in the October 2019 federal election.
Nevertheless, despite over a million persons of Polish descent in Canada today, the political and cultural saliency of Polish-Canadians is still rather low. One would guess that the “affect” of their identity, for most Polish-Canadians, is fairly weak. Thus, it was highly important for the community to have its concerns and history acknowledged in April 2010 in so public a fashion – although it was most unfortunate that it was in the wake of such a huge tragedy for Poland.
Perhaps it may be hoped that there would be, in the wake of the tragedy, some quickening in the life of the Polish-Canadian community – for example, through increased support by the community to its organizations and the few, mostly impecunious foundations.
This moment of great tragedy in the history of Poland could perhaps become, it may be hoped, part of the beginning of a process of the Polish-Canadian community finally making a significant impact on the Canadian scene, and finally breaking through to the consciousness of many more Canadians.
Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer and historical researcher. He was born in Toronto of Polish immigrant parents.